In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Archaeology of Central America

  • Introduction
  • Journals and Book Series
  • Primary Field Records Generally Available for Study
  • General Environment
  • Pioneering Research in Central America
  • Overviews of Central American Prehistory
  • Early Settlement and Domestication in Central America
  • Interregional Interaction: Diffusion, Migration, and Trade
  • Interregional Interaction: Foreign Contacts and the Exercise of Power
  • Dynastic Power and Foreign Presence in the Southeast Maya Zone
  • Modeling Sociopolitical Complexity in Southeast Mesoamerica and Lower Central America
  • Wealth and Power in Lower Central America
  • Household and Community
  • Making Society and Self in Central America
  • Landscapes of Meaning and Identity
  • Conquest, Resistance, and Transformation

Latin American Studies The Archaeology of Central America
Edward Schortman, Patricia Urban
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 August 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0257


Central America, made up of Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, has long been a place without. Without, or beyond, the bounds of Mesoamerica and the Andes, its inhabitants have been traditionally seen as recipients of innovations, such as hierarchically structured political formations, not their creators. Consequently, the region’s cultures were defined by what they were not, Mesoamerican or Andean, and what they lacked, large cities, massive public works, imposing public art. There was little to draw the attention of researchers to Central America once the boundaries of its eye-catching neighbors were drawn. Its history presumably determined by the diffusion of ideas and practices from neighboring core states, Central America slipped into archaeological obscurity. It remains unclear whether the region constitutes a distinct culture area. This doleful account of perpetual marginality has changed as research has intensified throughout the zone since the late 1960s. Increased recognition among archaeologists that cultural boundaries are porous and that developments in one locale cannot be understood apart from events happening elsewhere helped to spur an interest in Central America’s ancient peoples. Originally motivated by a desire to clarify the reach and impact of Mesoamerican societies, research agendas are shifting across the isthmus. The varied histories of Central America’s many prehistoric and early historic cultures are now stressed along with the ways they were shaped as their members negotiated relations with people and things across interaction networks operating at scales ranging from within sites to those relations that spanned several thousand miles. The sources cited in this article draw from research conducted within what are generally treated as three geographic segments of Central America: The Southeast Lowland Maya Zone (including the monumental capitals of Copán and Quirigua); Southeast Mesoamerica (western Honduras and El Salvador), whose populations apparently maintained relatively close ties with the Maya lowlands for various periods; and Lower Central America (eastern Honduras and eastern El Salvador south through Panama), whose people largely spoke languages of the macro-Chibchan group and were weakly or indirectly involved with Mesoamerica and the Andes. These distinctions are units of convenience that continue to impact research intensities, questions, and interpretations to varying degrees. Archaeological investigations have also been affected by the civil and military disruptions from which many of the area’s populations continue to suffer. Archaeological research has been one casualty— certainly not the most important—of these events.

Journals and Book Series

Articles concerning research conducted in Central America originally appeared in the journal American Antiquity which included reports on investigations pursued throughout the New World. Latin American Antiquity was launched in 1990 as an offshoot of this older publication. It is here that you will find materials relating to Central American archaeology together with those pertaining to investigations pursued in all areas south of the United States to Tierra del Fuego. Ancient Mesoamerica serves as a venue for the dissemination of data and interpretations relating to those parts of Central America that mostly fall within the Southeast Lowland Maya Zone (Copán and Quirigua in particular) and bordering sections of Southeast Mesoamerica. The Journal of Field Archaeology publishes findings from research conducted around the world, though articles dealing with Central America as it is defined here have appeared in it with some regularity. A good source for short reports on research dealing with Central American prehistory is Mexicon. Few regional outlets for articles deal with the archaeology of particular Central American nations. Vínculos and Yaxkin have, since 1975, fulfilled this role for Costa Rica and Honduras, respectively. The edited volumes published by Dumbarton Oaks address issues pertinent to Central American archaeology and are well worth reviewing for information on, and ideas about, the area’s past. The website for the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies provides access to reports filed by its grant recipients. This work includes research conducted in El Salvador and Honduras.

  • American Antiquity. 1935–.

    This is the flagship journal of the Society for American Archaeology, the largest association of archaeologists in North America. Prior to 1990, articles dealing with Central America appeared in its pages along with those reporting on work pursued throughout the Americas. With the launch of Latin American Antiquity in 1990 this practice has ceased, articles dealing with Central America now appearing in the latter journal.

  • Ancient Mesoamerica. 1990–.

    Contributors to this journal are primarily concerned with research conducted north and west of Central America. Articles dealing with the lowland Maya sites of Copán and Quirigua have appeared here as have essays concerned with materials from farther south in Central America, primarily from sites within western El Salvador and Honduras. The articles combine presentations of data with interpretations that develop ideas of broad interest in archaeology.

  • Dumbarton Oaks.

    This private institution is affiliated with Harvard University and publishes edited volumes dealing with its twin concerns of Byzantine and pre-Columbian archaeology. In the latter field these contributions bring together experts in a particular portion of the Americas south of the United States who consider the relevance of their research to the questions that serve as the volume’s focus. Several examples are cited in the following sections.

  • Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies.

    This foundation formerly supported research in Mesoamerica. Though these funds are no longer available, the institution’s website serves as a portal through which research reports filed by its grantees can be accessed. The summaries include synopses of archaeological work conducted in Southeast Mesoamerica and Copán.

  • Journal of Field Archaeology. 1974–.

    This publication features articles that deal with investigations conducted around the world. Reports of findings from Central America have appeared here with some regularity. The journal favors contributions that stress detailed presentations of research findings. Articles dealing with archaeology’s history, cultural heritage, and questions of ethics also appear in its pages.

  • Latin American Antiquity. 1990–.

    This journal is published by the Society for American Archaeology. Its remit encompasses the prehistory of the Americas south of the United States. Articles in English and Spanish dealing with Central America have appeared in it. Like other contributions, these are balanced between short reports of new finds and extended considerations of how a body of data relates to issues of broad concern in archaeology.

  • Mexicon. 1979–.

    Publishes short data reports in Spanish, English, and German that disseminate the results of ongoing or recently completed studies. Despite the name, articles dealing with Central American archaeology appear in its pages. A good source for information on work in the area that might not otherwise appear in print for several years (see @Mexicon_journal on Twitter for information about the journal).

  • Vínculos. 1975–.

    Vínculos is the journal of the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica. Its articles in Spanish and English cover topics relevant to Costa Rican prehistory, ethnohistory, and history.

  • Yaxkin. 1975–.

    Yaxkin is the journal of the Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia. It publishes articles in Spanish dealing with the prehistory, ethnohistory, and history of Honduras.

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